After recording the highest murder rate in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2020, Jamaica is already seeing an uptick in violence this year, with an average of more than 100 homicides per month.
The island country logged 328 killings through March 20, a seven percent increase from the 307 killings during the same period last year, according to data from Jamaica’s Constabulary Force. Nearly half of all murders documented through the beginning of March occurred in broad daylight, according to police data obtained by the Jamaica Gleaner.
A 24-hour-stretch last month, on March 16, that saw 10 people killed was particularly deadly. The bloodshed included the shooting of a local vendor, a double murder in the capital Kingston and the slaying of a 21-year-old delivery truck driver, the Jamaica Gleaner reported. The country was also shaken after a particularly bad weekend in mid-January, when 25 people were killed and several others wounded in various attacks.
"The level of brazenness and utter disregard for lives and public order cannot be accepted," Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte told local media after that wave of lethal violence.
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The rising toll of violence in Jamaica is one of the main reasons that the country passed the National Consensus on Crime in mid-2020, a crime reduction plan that is being overseen by a multi-sectoral, non-partisan committee. The plan calls for the prioritization of effective social and community programs, reforming Jamaica’s Constabulary Force and the incorporation of the military into targeted crime fighting efforts in areas racked by high numbers of killings and other violent crimes.
“This is a collaboration between civil society and the major political parties to identify what we agree must be implemented to achieve a sustainable reduction in crime, corruption and violence, and our body is there to monitor the work they’re doing,” said Lloyd Distant, president of Jamaica’s Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the oversight committee.
Modernizing and transforming the Constabulary Force is among the top priorities. Jamaica has about 450 officers per 100,000 people, according to Anthony Clayton, a security expert and professor at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies. While the number of officers is above the global average of about 300 per 100,000 people, the workload per officer -- which Clayton says is around 40 times higher than in a country like the United Kingdom -- is unmanageable.
"There are only five or six officers to deal with each homicide,” said Clayton, who also helped write the National Consensus on Crime and is part of the committee overseeing its implementation.
The force is also battling high rates of resignations and absenteeism, which Clayton said is indicative of a culture that needs to change through investing in training, better salaries and career prospects. Technological capabilities need to be improved, and, at the very least, police vehicles need to be in working order, he added.
The anti-crime plan, though, looks beyond just the police force. The government is also pushing legislative reforms, including an overhaul of the outdated 1967 Firearms Act. Some 80 percent of the country’s homicides are committed with illegal firearms, according to Security Minister Horace Chang.
"We have laws about the illegal possession of firearms but none that speak to the illegal manufacturing or trafficking of firearms, which is why these legislative changes are so important in the fight against crime,” Distant said.
Criminal gangs in Jamaica have for years trafficked guns into the country from the United States and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Fishing boats, for example, are loaded with marijuana to be traded in Haiti for handguns and assault weapons that are then sold off to gangs and other local crime groups. In 2017, the Small Arms Survey, which tracks illicit firearms around the world, estimated there were more than 200,000 unregistered guns in Jamaica.
Other initiatives include amendments to “anti-gang” legislation to better dismantle criminal organizations and solidifying the autonomy of the Major Organized Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA), an FBI-style unit focused on high-level organized crime cases.
Distant told InSight Crime that the oversight committee is “optimistic about achieving its goals,” as long as there continues to be support for the plan by the many entities involved, including civil society, the government, opposition, and private sector. At the same time, Security Minister Chang announced the launch of the multimillion-dollar Plan Secure Jamaica in early February 2021, which will complement what the National Consensus on Crime has already set into motion.
Jamaica’s pivot to what the anti-crime initiative calls a more “comprehensive, coordinated, and integrative” approach to combatting violent crime is a shift away from past responses to upticks in violence, which were often short-sighted and featured heavy-handed joint military-police occupations.
“Jamaica has to climb out of this pit we’ve dug in order to deal with crime and corruption and undo a lot of the evil that has been done,” Clayton said.